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12:15 PM

Satisfied But Uncertain

While IT remains a lucrative field, InformationWeek's Salary Survey finds that many tech pros don't see it as a promising career

David Butler says he has the ideal job. Why is the 44-year- old director of human resources and payroll applications at spice maker McCormick & Co. so upbeat? "IT offers a way to get HR out of the back office and help people make the business go," Butler explains. "That's why I wanted to lead this group."

More IT staffers and managers say they're satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs this year than last, according to the just-released 2005 InformationWeek Salary Survey. While the majority of the 12,158 IT professionals surveyed say they're content now, would they do it all again? It doesn't seem likely: About two-thirds of the respondents don't see IT as a promising career. A combination of factors, including stagnant pay, the belief that outsourced work costs Americans jobs, and the recent history of economic and employment gloom, continue to haunt IT pros' attitudes.

Staff Base Salaries, bar chart"We all have vivid memories of having gone through rough times over the last four years, and it's hard to have a level of trust in ourselves, in our companies, and the economy as whole," says Nate Viall, president of IT recruitment firm Nate Viall & Associates.

Those impressions may overshadow what's actually a brighter picture for the profession. IT remains one of the most lucrative careers for Americans, with an unemployment rate nearly two percentage points below the average for all occupations. That's an improvement over this time last year, when IT unemployment basically mirrored that of the overall job market. Median salaries for IT staffers are more than double those of the average U.S. worker, and tech managers earn about two-thirds more than supervisors and executives in other fields. Since 1999, median annual IT staff compensation--salaries plus bonuses--has risen 5.8% a year to $71,000; manager compensation has increased 5.5% annually to $95,000.

Among those on the edge of the six-figure mark when it comes to salary--all at $98,000--are managers in application development, human resources, IS, and Web security. (See stories, "Security's Shifting Dynamic," "Vertical-Industry Approach," and "Skills Combo Pays Off" for the career strategies of IT pros in some of the highest-paying professions.) Butler landed his sweet-spot job after spending his entire career at McCormick, beginning as a programmer trainee nearly 20 years ago and working his way up to management. He sees technology as an instrument to help retain qualified employees as retirements loom, as well as prepare the company for the future by recruiting new skilled talent. Butler, who earned an MBA from York College of Pennsylvania, wants a central role in developing systems that help in succession planning and personnel development.

He's on the right track. The survey shows that IT professionals expect their companies to help them grow in their careers. Two-fifths of the respondents anticipate further education and training, and nearly 20% expect reimbursement for certification. Application development, project management, general IT functions, and network and systems infrastructure are at the top of the list of training options that companies offer, and these have some correlations to the top-paying management and staff job titles. Median salaries for wireless infrastructure and enterprise-application-integration staff specialists, for instance, hover around $80,000. But it's not a total match. For instance, while Web security is a high-paying career path for managers and staffers, only 19% of companies offer training in security analysis.

Impact Of Outsourcing, bar chartThat seems pretty low considering exposures to security risks are on the rise. In fact, vulnerabilities in Web apps soared more than 80% last year, according to a Symantec Corp. study. Christofer Hoff, the chief information security officer at Western Corporate Federal Credit Union, one of the nation's largest federal credit unions, says the shifting demands of security constantly test his ability to manage risk. In addition to monitoring for security breaches, the goal is to manage processes so that data isn't exposed to the wrong people. "You have to understand where the information goes. The notion that we stop at the firewall is a very shallow view," says Hoff, who ran his own IT services company from the mid-1990s to 2003, when he joined Wescorp.

Hoff obviously feels challenged in his job, but one question the survey raises is whether IT professionals are trading a challenging career for job security. A vast majority of those surveyed say challenge and responsibility are top job considerations, yet only 33% of IT staff and 47% of IT managers say they feel challenged in their positions.

More ordinary factors weigh heavily on the minds of many IT pros. Job stability equaled challenge for 61% of staffers, up six percentage points in a year. Similarly, 54% of managers cited job stability as a concern, up nine points from last year.

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